storytellers vs. searchers

a nice evening at my house
[see updates, below]
My brother, Michael A. Clemens, is an expert on issues of economic development and was recently asked to do a book review for the pre-eminent journal of thinking on international politics, Foreign Policy. I am not able to appreciate his work fully, but I know he’s very smart and worked very hard to get to the point where his ideas can get the influence they deserve, and I am very proud of him and happy to share his name! In his honor, I want to rip off one of his frameworks and use it for my own purposes; pretty bad behavior, but that’s family for you.
He divides thinkers on economic development for poorer countries into two camps: “planners” (who want to create grand visions for the future and fund large projects) and “searchers” (who want a more incremental and experimental approach to finding what works). If I butcher his arguments completely, I could say that he concludes that neither camp adequately and seriously takes on the complexities of actually improving the economic situation of developing countries at all, however. Development is hard to do, and there are no short-cuts.
Far away from the moral value of his work and in my petty world of Internet bullshit, there is an analogous divide, between “storytellers” and “searchers.” The storytellers are usually the big thinker types and designers, who believe in their ability to imagine a solution, build excitement, tell the story of how it will make things better, and make it happen. The searchers don’t believe in stories anymore, they trust hard facts and cold reality, eschewing fanciful stories for careful scientific principles and evolutionary methods.
In engineering, the culture is heavily weighted toward the searchers. In design and marketing, the culture is weighted toward the storytellers. For example, today visual artists were described to me as interfering with good design decisions in Web sites, “failed artists” who shouldn’t been taken as seriously as “an architect, say.” This is clearly a searcher perspective, heaping scorn on the emotional side in favor of ‘more serious’ approaches. Conversely, the storytellers will deride the ‘incrementalism’ and ‘lack of ambition’ of the searchers, wishing for the ‘next game changing idea’ to emerge out of some yeasty marathon whiteboard brainstorm.
Recently this article about the weaknesses of “democratized design” looks disapprovingly at the new “hack culture” of participatory innovation, saying that genuinely new things (“like the iPod” –ugh) can’t be produced “by committee”; the clear implication is that a single person’s great idea (storyteller) will beat a mob of tinkerers (searchers). I’m not sure about that either; seems too grandiose.
You can even find parallels to this in ancient philosophy, where Plato exalted the unseen ideal (storyteller) and Aristotle wanted to ban plays and poems because they distorted clear thinking (searcher). Being a designer, I constantly find myself on the wrong side of whatever group I’m in. Being able to draw a picture of something does not count nearly as much as code, but I am addicted to the power of stories. I have attempted to bridge this gap by becoming a designer who builds, but most people I know still sort themselves firmly into one of the two groups.
In fact, the abstract nature of Web products allows people to work purely in one camp or the other, without a hard need (other than the success or failure of their projects) to cross the divide in their thinking. This is apparent all the time in the whining of designers and their fantasies of becoming dictators to engineers bound to execute whatever they say, and the resentment engineers have toward the promiscuous, irresponsible, and arbitrary ideas of airhead designers. This game is stacked against a synthesis right now, and we’re all worse off.
Ultimately, I come down on the side of the storytellers, but try to make a practice of humility about my ideas, checking them relentlessly against reality. The best practice is like life-drawing from a model: make a bold line and decide how you want to show a subject, but constantly look back and forth from your sketch to the person in front of you, making sure your drawing still has a likeness.
Update: This article on egotistical architects bemoans the masturbatory elitism of top architects, and feints briefly with democratic design ideas before coming down on the side of the elitists:

[Democratic design advocate Bruce] Nussbaum is dreaming if he thinks democracy and design are seriously compatible. Truth is, they’re not even love muffins.
This is partly because specialism – as in honed, polished expertise – is the core of what we call civilization. Designing your own may bring spiritual satisfaction, and homegrown design may be less ill-advised than homegrown, say, brain surgery. But be it blog, bog or village, it still has that unmistakable backyard look.
“Design democracy” is a feelgood idea, and that’s about the only quality it offers. As the Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy told last year’s Aspen Ideas Festival: “If I was competing with the US, I would love to have the students … spending their time on this kind of crap. To be a great designer is very hard. It’s not about your friends [liking] something you did.”
It’s hard because humans are hierarchical primates. Only the few can be great at design or anything else. To be a great architect – a Brunelleschi, say – may require a self-belief so vast as to be limitless, but it also requires more than a Botoxed self-portrait as proof.

Meh, seems like they are trying to have it both ways. I think it’s all about tension, not one extreme or the other. You could create a simplified two-card Oblique Strategies deck, with one card reading “let the usage and ideas of ordinary people be your guide” and the other reading “trust only your instincts and ruthlessly pursue what you think is best,” and switch strategies randomly!
Update 2: An Economist blogger flagged Michael’s review, and highlighted an idea that was implied in the review my brother wrote, that the only development strategy that made sense was allowing freer emigration to functioning economies (rather than trying to pursue ‘planner’ or ‘searcher’ strategies in countries that are so screwed up that no strategy is implementable. This made me wonder what the analogue to my world might be, and I think it’s something along the lines of opening up companies and products so that their data and ideas are more portable and free. If products are 100% interoperable and your data is your data (not trapped or siloed) but completely portable, we could have a faster, easier evolution of better networked products and services. As it is, people satisfice; sticking with some things just because it’s hard to move data around and nothing works easily with anything else.